Lord Bilimoria was a keynote speaker at the School of Oriental and African Studies on the 12th October, 2013, where he presented a speech at the School of Oriental and African Studies entitled The Everlasting Flame of Zoroastrian Identity: An Unbroken Thread of Achievement from Cyrus the Great to Today as part of the “Looking Back: Zoroastrian Identity Formation Through Recourse to the Past” conference, held to mark the launch of a ground-breaking exhibition in the Brunei Gallery at SOAS.
It is a privilege to speak here today at SOAS at the conference, “Looking Back: Zoroastrian Identity Formation Through Recourse to the Past” and also on the occasion of the launch of the outstanding “The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination” exhibition and catalogue, led by Dr Sarah Stewart of SOAS. I congratulate Dr Stewart and her editorial team, Pheroza Godrej, Ursula Sims-Williams, Firoza Mistree and Professor Almut Hintze, who I have always respected as one of the world’s leading living Zoroastrian scholars.
My lecture is entitled The Everlasting Flame of Zoroastrian Identity: The Unbroken Thread of Achievement from Cyrus the Great to Today.
It is important to note the historical links between the Vedic traditions in India and their influence on the developments within the Persian Empire, which at the time was the greatest land power on the face of the earth.
In “Birth of the Persian Empire” a book edited by Dr Stewart, it is noted that “there can be no doubt that the religion of the Achaemenians is not part of the history of Zoroastrianism. The alternative, to believe that there was a Western Iranian, non-Zoroastrian religion almost entirely identical to Zoroastrianism, is difficult to conceive.”
There is much to be said for the concept of a religion that is founded by a prophet speaking of the eternal truth.
In many respects, history is comprised of threads that bind memories of the distant past with the present day. The Vedic Tradition has its origins in India, but how did it influence the Persian Empire? What connects modern aspects of faith with the religion of Cyrus the Great and Xerxes? In 480 BCE, it is estimated that 50 million people lived in the Achaemenid Empire – approximately 44% of the world’s population at the time. This figure, reached by Yarshater, would make the Empire the largest ever in world history in terms of the percentage of the world’s population at the time.
We look at Cyrus as “Cyrus the Great”, the harbinger of one of the greatest Empires of the Ancient World. He is best known for two things. The first is the Cyrus Cylinder, perhaps the first recognisable modern legal instrument. In the United Kingdom, we consider the vital role of the Magna Carta. When giving tours of the Houses of Parliament, I always like to point out the facsimile of the document – which is in the ‘Content’ Voting Lobby of the House of Lords. In terms of European history, it is very august, having been signed in 1215 on the field of Runnymede. People rightly consider it to be first Bill of Rights. It sets out clear powers and authority of the Barons over the King, as well as serving a vital role in the establishment of the House of Lords and thereafter the House of Commons, a parliament free of the direct control of the monarch. However, although the British are very proud of the Magna Carta, it is juvenile compared to the Cyrus Cylinder, the declaration found in the ruins of ancient Babylon that sets out the great deeds and genealogy of Emperor Cyrus the Great.
Created in around the year 530BC, the cylinder notes the most important aspects of Cyrus’ great humility and tolerance, which form vital aspects of the entire tradition of the Zoroastrian faith. This is especially true when one considers the role that Cyrus played – not just in the protection – but also in the active promotion of many different religions and faiths that flourished in the Persian Empire during this time. It cites his building projects in territories that he had conquered
“I rebuilt sanctuaries and chapels that lay in ruins. The deities of Sumer and Akkad that Nabonidus had, to the fury of the people, brought to Shuanna, I returned unharmed to their rightful sanctuaries. I have returned all the deities to their sanctuaries and restored their temples.”
It is rightly seen as a major artefact for world history, representing the first detailed look at statecraft within in a multi-ethnic society. There is a direct link between the protection and patronage of the Zoroastrian community under Cyrus, as well as the role that they enjoy in India and the United Kingdom today.
Secondly, Cyrus is also well known for his magnanimity – a specific example being that concerned with the refuge he gave to the Jews in Egypt. The Old Testament and the Torah both note this, as shown in the passage from the Book of Ezra;
Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which [is] in Judah. [Ezra 1:2]
It is important to note that neither Cyrus, nor the magi priests in his court who acted as advisors, sought to convert the people of the conquered lands to the Zoroastrian faith. As a figure, Cyrus was determined to ensure that the territories that he conquered, often lands that had been under the domination of other empires, had their traditional forms of worship and religious practices restored to the people who lived there. Although he was not the first Persian Emperor to follow this route, he certainly went beyond the examples set by his predecessors.
Babylonians and Jews alike considered Cyrus as being on a mission from their individual concept of God. His ecumenical approach remains one that is difficult to fit into the historical paradigm. By the standards of the day, Cyrus and his fellow Persian monarchs were almost unique in the way in which they practiced one faith, whilst accepting the right of subjects and client states to practice another. To the present day, Zoroastrians share this non-evangelising tradition with Hindus, although their approach goes even further, being as it is one that actively sets out to ensure that all individuals have a right to follow their ancestral faith, given that belief is a fundamental part of a person’s heritage and spirit.
If we continue the thread of history onwards, let us next consider the reign of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, who came to power well after the decline of the Zoroastrian religion saw the Parsi community forced to seek safety in India. Like Cyrus, Akbar was known by the epitaph of “the Great” and was also known for his great magnanimity and tolerance towards all religions. This continues to be a link between ancient Zoroastrianism and the influences of the Vedic tradition. Akbar was beloved both during his rule and in the centuries afterwards and his religious tolerance formed a major aspect of this tradition. Indeed. In 1582AD, he affected to establish the Din-I Illahi, (Religion of God) which was an attempt to synthesise aspects of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Jainism and Zoroastrianism into a single faith that would reconcile the in-fighting groups within his Empire. These efforts were greatly down to the influence of Zoroastrianism and the Vedic. After all, In Yasna 1, Ahura Mazda proclaims that;
My sixth name is understanding; my seventh is Intelligent One; my eighth name is Knowledge; my ninth is Endowed with Knowledge; my twentieth is Mazda (Wisdom). I am the Wise One; my name is the Wisest of the Wise.
As Subhash Kak notes, this is a role that is very reminiscent of Purusa in the Vedas, who projects such wisdom onto the three planes of the heavens, the sun and earth. The list of common deities and concepts between the two clearly show a common system of belief between Zoroastrianism and the Vedic one. The presence of Indra in the list of the daevas seems to mirror the relegation of Indra that started in the Puraic times where instead of connecting to Svar through the intermediate region of which Indra is Lord, a direct worship of the Great Lord was stressed. This innovation is not counter to the Vedic system since the triple division is a recursive order. The devas are a part of the good forces in the Zoroastrian system under the label of yazata.
Now, if one wishes to reflect upon the legacy of Zoroastrianism, let us consider the religion of the great ancient Western Empires. The Greeks and Romans are seen as the founders of European Culture, but their Polytheistic beliefs have died out. The Catholic Romans and Orthodox Greeks of today do not have the same thread of history going through them. Although Zoroastrianism was suppressed in Iran and has largely died out there, it still exists in a diaspora ranging from India to the United Kingdom to the United States. There is an historic, unbroken link between the religion of the ancient Persians and the community that I am part of today. On the one hand, there is Iran, a nation with so much potential and yet that the country is considered a concern for the whole world, but it has a religious history that has been broken. The Zoroastrian community around the world, though scattered, has survived away from its ancient homeland, yet still holds such a strong historical link and thread to the past that is arguably unsurpassed in world history.
I would like to stress that when I talk about Zoroastrian Parsis, I also include Zoroastrian Iranis.
The legend of the Milk and Sugar is apocryphal, but it retains a great historic basis. The Parsi Community has survived by preserving a racial connection through the Paternal Line in India and also by a strict preservation of the religion. This is thanks to a mutual understanding. There was a tolerance of the Indian Kings, but also the direct role that the Parsis played by not practicing an evangelising religion. They were not considered a threat to the established order.
Parsis were not seen as a threat and one of the main reasons for the lack of persecution was their refusal to go out and covert followers of the state religion to Zoroastrianism. Although the Parsis largely remained out of the historical narrative from their arrival in India over a millennia ago, they only really adopted a prominent role after the arrival of the British. Their emergence and success with the British comes from a number of factors.
Firstly, there is the religious role of Zoroastrianism on the development of their cultural, economic and social behaviour. We must consider the position of the Gathas on this. Not least one of the great defining characteristics of the vital role that great deeds and hard work play in life. I am particularly struck by this one;
By Thy perfect Intelligence, O Mazda
Thou didst first create us having bodies and spiritual consciences,
And by Thy Thought gave our selves the power of thought, word, and deed.
Thus leaving us free to choose our faith at our own will.
Yasna 31, 11.
When we compare Zoroastrianism to the more recent Abrahamic faiths, Catholicism and Anglicanism – for example – both place great emphasis on the forgiveness of sins. In the Book of Common Prayer, even the Lord’s Prayer implores God to “Forgive our Trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There is a more positive attitude in Zoroastrianism. Obviously, forgiveness of sins is an essential component of other Monotheistic religions and they have evolved, but in the pure form, Zoroastrianism remains almost unique in the role that we place upon achievement in this life, as well as preparing ourselves for judgement in the next.
To go back to the concept of “threads”, is it also not incredible that when we talk about Western philosophy and political thought, we still revert back to Plato and Aristotle? Why shouldn’t we do the same with religion? Just as there is the school of thought that says that every person in the West can be called either a Platoist or an Aristotelian, can we not argue that modern religion and their practices should not be seen as a reflection of the words of Zoroaster? We must consider the vital nature of what he encouraged, not least his promotion of achieving greatness in life and nurturing the environment. All religions talk about stewardship, but not in the same way as Zoroastrians talk about the preservation of the Amesha Spenta. Yasna 47.1 mentions;
“Through a virtuous spirit and the best thinking, through both the action and the word befitting truth, they shall grant completeness and immortality to Him.”
The same Gatha talks of these so-called “divine sparks” which are as follows;
Vohu Manah, – “Good Purpose”
Asa Vahista – Best Truth/Righteousness”
Xsathra Vairya – “Desirable Dominion”
Spanta Armaiti -“Holy Devotion”
Amaratat – “Immortality”
As Zoroastrians, we were all brought up to learn our prayers by heart, but not understand their meaning. I only gained a proper understanding of our prayers when Kathleen Raine – the famous poet and close friend of the Prince of Wales – presented me with a book by her very close friend, Piloo Nanavaty-Jungalwalla, called “The Gathas of Zarathustra.”
So many Parsis have lived their entire lives reciting by rote and listening to prayers without understanding a word of the dead languages that the Gathas were originally written in, and yet the practices and entrenched behaviours have led to their community becoming one of massive achievers and a tradition of serving the wider community. One could argue that this concept of being part of a wider social entity in India could have arisen out of necessity – given the Parsis having to find a safe haven after their persecution in Persia – but I believe that it predominantly comes from their inherent religious beliefs and practices. The threads of history continue to demonstrate this. Cyrus was magnanimous when he didn’t have to be and later, Zoroastrians were allowed to flourish under the Mughal Emperors and the British Raj by the same aspect of tolerance.
Most importantly, Parsis are seen as people who are trusted – this comes back from the founding origins of their faith. Parsis are respected by others – they have flourished and have continued to do so in India and the UK. Britain’s secular and multicultural nature has been a traditional source of sanctuary for persecuted people for centuries, starting since the time of the French Huguenots. Today, the United Kingdom allows people of all religion – not just Zoroastrians – to succeed. The Zoroastrian Trusts Funds of Europe, of which I am proud to be Patron, was founded in 1861, making it the first and the oldest of the Asian Faith-Based Organisations in the UK. Dadabhai Naoroji was a founding member and Mahatma Gandhi used to attend its events in the late 19th Century.
However, tolerance has not always been ubiquitous. For example in British India, there is the example of the discrimination that Jamsetji Tata found while establishing the vast conglomerate that takes his family name. When he was not allowed to enter a leading hotel in India because he was a native, he then decided to build the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay which eventually opened in 1903 to become one of the best hotels in India and today, it is one of the best hotels in the world! Closer to home, when Dadabhai Naoroji – the first Zoroastrian to sit in the House of Commons in 1892 – first decided to contest a seat in parliament, he found himself being attacked from representatives of all parties because of his ethnicity and background. The Prime Minister at the time, the Marquess of Salisbury, said,
“I regard the election at Holborn as a very valuable indication of public opinion at this moment. It is undoubtedly a smaller majority than Colonel Duncan won by last time, but then, Colonel Duncan was opposed by a black man; and, however great the progress of mankind has been, and however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudices, I doubt if we have yet got to the point where a British constituency will elect a black man to represent them.”
Reports of the reaction to this speech were mixed, with some noting “laughter” and others “cries of shame.” However, it was certainly controversial. Isn’t it ironic that Naoroji was fairer in complexion than the notoriously ruddy-faced Salisbury was! The Prime Minister never apologised for the remark, although he would later invite Naoroji to become a member of the governing body of the Imperial Institute.
Despite these problems, Naroroji’s own maiden speech, which he made after being elected MP for Central Finsbury, talks of his thanks at being elected,
“Central Finsbury has earned the everlasting gratitude of the millions of India, and has made itself famous in the history of the British Empire, by electing an Indian to represent it. Its name will never be forgotten by India. This event has strengthened the British power and the loyalty and attachment of India to it ten times more than the sending out of one hundred thousand European soldiers would have done. […] I thank you, Sir, for allowing me to say these few words and the House for so indulgently listening to me, and I hope that the connection between England and India – which forms five-sixths of the British Empire – may continue long with benefit to both countries.”
Before I made my own maiden speech in the House of Lords, I referenced the Zoroastrian community and I also read Naroroji maiden speech, which I keep on my desk in my House of Lords Office. In my speech I spoke about the Zoroastrian community when I became the first Zoroastrian Parsi to sit in the Upper Chamber in 2006. Again, the thread of history connected me with Naroroji, with the Zoroastrian Parsi members of Akbar’s court and the Zoroastrians at the time of Cyrus the Great. I noted the role played by this community;
“Today the Parsis number fewer than 100,000 people in India […] I am so proud of what our tiny community has achieved, not only in India but also by producing the first three Asian MPs in Britain. […] My great grandfather, DD Italia, came from the city of Hyderabad in India, where I was born. He was a Member of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House in India, and he was a man in whose footsteps I am proud to follow here in our Upper House, the House of Lords. I am also proud to have been inspired by his motto, “to aspire and achieve”. My company and I have adopted this as our vision and added, “to aspire and achieve against all odds, with integrity”. It may seem against all odds for Britain in this global world, up against giants like China and India, but we must aspire, and we must continue to achieve, and most importantly we must do so with what we have always been renowned for, and that is our integrity. ”
I am so proud that the Zoroastrian community has been able to succeed in such a rounded way, but also in such an impressive way – which beguiles our tiny size – we range from great industrialists like Jamsetji Tata to one of the modern world’s most famous musicians, Freddie Mercury.
We create great lawyers – a few years ago, both the Chief Justice of the Indian Supreme Court and Solicitor General were Zoroastrians. We can be great military leaders, my own father, Lt. General Faridoon Bilimoria was Commander-in-Chief of the Central Indian Army. Other Parsis have risen to the top in the Armed Forces, including my uncle, Lt. General Adi Setnha, who was Vice-Chief of the Indian Army and my relative, Admiral Jal Cursetji, who was the first Zoroastrian Parsi to be appointed Chief of the Indian Naval Staff. Air Chief Marshal Aspy Engineer served as the Chief of the Indian Air Staff, followed by Air Chief Marshal Falli Major. There was also Field Marshal Manekshaw, who was Chief of the Indian Army. There were influential politicians, including Indira Gandhi’s husband Feroze Gandhi and the prominent parliamentarian Minoo Masani. The Parsis have always been great philanthropists – I have already mentioned the Tata family; there is Dr Cyrus Poonawalla, one of the major sponsors of the Everlasting Flame Exhibition at SOAS – and of course the Zartoshty Brothers, benefactors of SOAS and the Zoroastrian Centre in Harrow, whose amazing benefaction is legendary. If I may be so bold, I myself have been given the opportunity to create Cobra Beer, which is now a household name and one of the best-known Indian brands in Britain, from scratch. Homi J. Bhabha, the founder of the Indian nuclear power industry, was a Zoroastrian Parsi. HMS Trincomalee, which was launched in 1817 and remains afloat in Hartlepool, was built by the Wadia Group, a Zoroastrian Parsi family of shipbuilders. I remember being taken on board the vessel as a young boy by my great aunt, Sheroo Wadia. And of course, Farokh Engineer remains one of the greatest wicketkeeper batsmen of all time.
Indeed, I could go I could go about Zoroastrians Parsis reaching the top and excelling in just about every field. In my own experience, it is not purely because of encouragement from the family, but because I am part of an entire community of achievers. Parsis are fortunate in that we are constantly inspired by being part of an exceptional community. I would go so far as to say that the Zoroastrian Parsis are the most successful community in the world in terms of per capita of achievement. My great-grandfather was a major inspiration to me, as was my father, a senior army officer, but I have also received, by a sort of cultural osmosis, inspiration from our ancient history. There is a certain irony that all this goes back in an unbroken thread from a community that was almost destroyed to one that remains tiny even to this day. Parsis are the smallest recognised religious group in the United Kingdom of under 6000 people out of a population of over 60 million, but we retain a sense of pride in our achievements, event to the present day. On the other hand, the Parsis in Iran have not been allowed to flourish, unlike those in India and Britain.
My friend, the Nobel Laureate, Professor Amartya Sen has written at great length about identity. He believes that we have multiple identities. In my case, I am proud to be an Indian; I am proud to be an Asian living in Britain; I am proud to be British and I am very proud to be a Zoroastrian Parsi.
Parsis in India are proud to be Indians as well as being Zoroastrians.
Adam Grant, Professor of Management at Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has recently authored a book entitled – “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.” Professor Grant says that there are three types of people in the world – givers, takers and matchers. Although he finds that the majority of givers don’t exceed the accomplishments of takers and matchers, he concludes that even if givers don’t always get the same outcome, when they do rise, they make friends, rather than enemies. When I read that, I immediately thought of the Zoroastrian Community.
To me, the Zoroastrian Parsi community is the living embodiment of the aspiration and achievement of this ancient religion – good values lead to the everlasting flame of the Zoroastrian community. It is a wonderful combination of identity and pride. In October 2010, Rowan Williams became the first ever Archbishop of Canterbury to visit the Zoroastrian Centre in Harrow. He responded to a speech I had made welcoming him. He said;
“We know what we’re missing: integrity, the word itself, comes from the Latin for ‘wholeness’. Integrity is the ability to hold your life together, not to let it be fragmented, broken up, with parts of it hidden and parts of it revealed, but rather to be able to stand in the light, in the truth without fear.”
Many misuse the word, but the Zoroastrian community use it properly. We can gain integrity through proper action and via a strong sense of heritage, identity and instinctive, un-arrogant humility and confidence without hubris over the generations.
It is this aspect of us that represents the thread of history and the everlasting flame. I am the founder of the World Zoroastrian Chamber of Commerce in the UK. Our slogan is “Industry and Integrity.” Asha and Righteousness are at the heart of all that we set out to achieve. If you would allow me to finish with a business analogy – “Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right thing”; Zoroastrianism is about always doing the right thing.